Christopher Stephens’s study attempts a rebalancing of interpretations of fourth-century disputes by focusing on the canonical work of synods rather than their doctrinal formulae. To this end, the first two chapters explore the historical context, ascription, and Sitz im Leben of the Antiochene canons with a particular focus on the question of their dating and identifying the synod responsible for their drafting. That the canons cannot be the work of the Dedication Council of 341 has long been observed, and dates either in the context of the case of Eustathius (just after 325 at the earliest) or in the 330s have been suggested in scholarship. Stephens follows on from proposals for the late 330s; specifically he argues for a date in 338 for many (not necessary all) of the canons. This date places them in the context of the return from exile of bishops—Athanasius being the most prominent—after the death of Constantine. The dating overall fits the allusions to and discussions of such cases in other texts of the period. Yet evidence for the precise circumstances and extent of synodical activity at the time is scarce, and so the attribution remains of necessity hypothetical. However, even if the date had to be moved into 339 (which has also been suggested previously), it would not, in my view, invalidate the interpretative context in which Stephens reads the canons. Less convincing is the suggestion of intense synodical activity in Antioch at the time (of which there is no evidence) and its tentative interpretation as an early form of ‘permanent synod’ active in the city (on the analogy of the synodos endemousa of Constantinople in later centuries, but not attested in Antioch even then). This wrongly presupposes a level of institutional development and regularity not seen at the time. Over the historical context of the Serdican council there is comparatively more certainty. Important here is the fact that on Stephens’s hypothesis for the Antiochene canons both sets of canons can be interpreted as part of the same conversation or dispute. This insight is not entirely new but deserves restating. The two central chapters, then, read a selection of relevant canons (others dealing with different matters are not in focus) as contributions to the discussion on the ultimate locus of disciplinary authority and pertaining procedures of conflict resolution in cases of disputed orthodoxy and conduct in office and of deposition and relegation or exile, and about the (im-)possibility of return and reinstatement—best illustrated by the cases of Athanasius and Marcellus. Compared to the Antiochene prescriptions, the Serdican canons frequently provide a counter-point and alternative model, in which the possibility of appeal in other parts of the Empire and Church, and Roman appellate adjudication, are promoted. The epistolary exchanges between Julius of Rome and the Eastern bishops reveal the contested models and assumptions of ‘normality’ and ‘regularity’ in these instances; the recent editions of the relevant texts in the Documents of the Arian Controversy series (2012–14) offer helpful introduction and annotation (not consistently used by Stephens). Built on these two cases, the following chapters explore the wider implications and contexts of the development of early canon law and their relevance for fourth-century episcopal debates. Stephens rejects interpretations that link the authority and reach of canons to levels of synodical representation, or that understand them as appealing principally to a moral self-restraining of conscience by those involved. Instead he proposes the need to distinguish claims to universal authority from the frequent inability to enforce obedience on the analogy of auctoritas and potestas. He lays out similarities, in this and other respects, with imperial legislation and detects decisive factors in the slow accrual of authority by codification and alongside the gradual developments of hierarchical and bureaucratic frameworks in the church(es). Attention to canons, then, is advocated as the necessary counterbalance to doctrinally focused narratives of fourth-century debates. What the author makes of interpretations which, in contrast, analyse the period principally in power-political terms is less apparent. In regard of the theological disputes the argument at times overshoots, for instance when it qualifies the drafting of credal statements as a mere convention, and most notably in the characterization of the Antiochene council(s) as ‘Nicene’ on the basis of their refusal to contradict or invalidate Nicene canonical prescriptions. Applied in this way, the designation loses any heuristic value. A final remark on the engagement with scholarly literature may be opportune. While there is a commendably full listing of studies in languages other than English, few of those can be said to guide Stephens’s examination; some references even give the impression of secondary appropriation. Perhaps linked to this, and despite predictable claims to engage critically with ‘recent’ scholarship, the treatment of the theological developments after Nicaea can at times be rather dated, criticizing, for example, Bright (1903) or Bethune-Baker (1933); Grillmeier is quoted from the 1975 English version, completely superseded by several reworked German editions; Hanson is introduced as a contemporary voice (citing a 2005 reprint), when in fact his seminal study first appeared in 1988 and is part of the conversation of a different generation. (It is generally unhelpful in this context and adds to a blurring of ‘recent’ discussion, that reprints are not identified as such in the bibliography.) Rather than representing current discussion, the positions criticized remain present only in a small segment of scholarship. Stephens’s ‘revision’, therefore, only catches up with the changed perspectives of at least a generation of scholars elsewhere. One misses a Greek text and attendant text-critical discussion—there is merely an English translation—of the Antiochene canons. The new ACO edition of the Trullanum and its canons (2013) is not used, and a number of instructive studies on canonical collections by its editor, H. Ohme, are absent. Stephens has also missed Aram Mardirossian, La Collection canonique d’Antioche (2010), which could have offered illuminating comparison for the processes of canonical compilation from the later fourth century. In the wider horizon of canon law, the recent study by D. Wagschal (Law and Legality in the Greek East: The Byzantine Canonical Tradition, 381–883, 2014) and the collection The History of Byzantine and Eastern Canon Law to 1500 (2012) could usefully also have been included. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Theological Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 20, 2018
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